Tenden in downtown Grand Haven sells handmade clothing and handcrafted goods, and has reopened its storefront, above, to in-person shopping in the wake of closures stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Gina’s Boutique in Grand Rapids, left, has a sign directing customers to sanitize their hands upon entering the shop. Tenden in downtown Grand Haven sells handmade clothing and handcrafted goods, and has reopened its storefront, above, to in-person shopping in the wake of closures stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Gina’s Boutique in Grand Rapids, left, has a sign directing customers to sanitize their hands upon entering the shop. COURTESY PHOTO

Retail shops focus on customer service in gradual reopening

BY Sunday, June 07, 2020 06:30pm

Providing different ways to shop and making customers feel as safe as possible remains the focus for retailers as they gradually work to reopen their stores. 

Many small retail shops in West Michigan have been in survival mode with limited operations for the past few months because of mitigation steps put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19. As well, stores face an added cost to buy personal protection equipment, and a learning curve for staff and customers to follow new safety procedures.

On June 1, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer rescinded her stay-home order and announced retail stores would be among the next wave of businesses able to reopen starting June 4. Previously, retail stores had only been able to operate on an appointment-only basis with a 10-person limit since May 26. Before that, non-essential physical stores were completely closed and retailers were operating through delivery and curbside service.

Several local shop owners said they did not have a problem abiding by the 10-person limit, and could usually allow walk-in appointments. Since June 4, store owners were no longer required to use an appointment system, but now have to follow capacity restrictions based on the square footage of their location, the same as essential retailers like grocery stores.

Lisa Hungerink, owner of Reader’s World Bookstore, said she has spent nearly $500 buying masks and hand sanitizer and installing a sneeze guard at her downtown Holland store. Sales are not what they usually would be, she said, but customers are still supporting the store and have been understanding with the new safety precautions such as wearing masks.

“Everybody has kind of learned how to be more patient,” Hungerink said. “I want to thank everyone who has supported us during our closure.”

The business has been in operation since 1967 in Holland, so it has a loyal following in the community, she added.

“We have a lot of people that support us, so we were really happy to have the orders we did have,” Hungerink said. “Once we could open our doors, we still continued to do curbside for people that wanted it.”

Missed opportunities

Although most stores had to close during the whole month of April because of COVID-19, 59 percent of retailers in the state expect increased sales through July, according to a survey from the Michigan Retailers Association. Among survey respondents, 37 percent predicted decreased sales, while 4 percent expected no change. 

“Retailers were worried shoppers may be hesitant to venture out, but Memorial Day weekend in northern Michigan quickly revealed there is a pent-up demand,” MRA President and CEO Bill Hallan said in a June 1 statement. “Many retailers all over the state said they’ve been busy with appointments and filling orders the past week, so we hope this broader opening allows more stability as stores recover from the shutdown.”

Don’s Flowers & Gifts Inc. has not seen the usual foot traffic at this time of the year, but people started coming into the downtown Zeeland store as soon as it reopened on May 26.

“There is some confusion in the general public of what is and isn’t open, and do they need to call ahead,” co-owner Doug Vos said. “People are still trying to navigate the executive orders.”

The flower and gift shop has been posting photos of its products on Facebook to make it easier to showcase items to customers. The company is continuing to offer curbside service for people who are not comfortable coming inside the newly reopened store. 

“The March and April timeframe is always a busy time for us with proms, Easter and administrative professional day, and we’ve lost all of those,” Vos said. “Mother’s Day we were allowed to be open for curbside and deliveries, but we still missed out on in-store traffic.”

Before the pandemic, most customers at Don’s Flowers & Gifts would walk into the store to shop. When the company was able to open for curbside service, it moved its in-store cooler with flowers to the door so customers could see arrangements without coming inside. 

“People want to be able to see it,” Vos said. “You can’t always describe it over the phone.”

Vos said the company invested quite a bit into personal protection equipment and hand sanitizer to protect employees and customers. Finding the products was a battle of its own, with a shipment of masks delivered to the store the same day it was allowed to open for appointment-only customers.

“We just want our customers to know that we’re here for them,” Vos said. “If there’s anything we can do to make them more comfortable, don’t be afraid to ask.”

Rekindling the fire

A similar standard of service and safety measures can be found at Gina’s Boutique in downtown Grand Rapids. 

As soon as shoppers walk into the downtown clothing boutique, they are asked to sanitize their hands and are provided masks if they don’t already have one. Employees wash their hands every half hour, and the company also set up a touchless payment system, said Gina VanTimmeren, owner of Gina’s Boutique. Employees also set aside clothes that customers have tried on previously. 

“At this point, I’ve spent about $350,” VanTimmeren said of the company’s PPE expenditures. “I did not expect the masks to go as fast as they have. They’re probably about $50 for 50 of them and I went through 50 in one day at my Saugatuck location.”

People usually stop into her shop when they come to downtown Grand Rapids to eat, VanTimmeren said. Restaurants that are closed or operating with just takeout and delivery do not provide as much of a draw, she added. 

One thing the executive orders have done is force VanTimmeren as a business owner to work harder to find creative ways to reach her customers. Customers can still shop on the boutique’s website, and there is free local delivery. She has also started “virtual styling” by trying on new outfits and posting the videos to Facebook.

“That part has been cool, being able to serve my customers in a new way,” VanTimmeren said. “It has brought back my hustle and reminds me of when I first opened and had that fire to do creative things that you can’t get from a chain retailer.”

With most trade shows canceled this year, the boutique could struggle in getting enough clothes for spring and winter in 2021, VanTimmeren said, noting the store will likely have a lighter inventory next season.

“I usually go to three or four trade shows and I think a lot of vendors will probably go out of business on that end,” she said. “That industry is so unknown, it will just be a challenge for me trying to pick out everything because usually you get to see it in person.”

Seeing the process

Todd Hancock, owner of Tenden, a Grand Haven-based store with clothing and handcrafted goods, feels fortunate that he makes most of his products. Hancock also was able to sew masks, which helped him maintain cash flow to pay for utilities, for example, when he was closed to the public. 

“Material is taking quite a bit longer to ship, so I might have to adapt a little bit, but for the most part I stock all my materials pretty far in advance,” he said.

Hancock’s small downtown shop can only hold a few people anyway, so he adapted well to the appointment-only restriction. Customers were supporting him with online sales and curbside pickup, but Hancock said he was happy to reopen his shop to some foot traffic.

“When people come into the shop, they see me, see how everything was made, and all my sewing machines are out in public view,” he said. “It gives me energy and is rewarding for people to see part of the process. It’s part of the shop itself.” 

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